The opening of the Canadian Football League free agent market has forever served as one of the meatiest news events on the offseason calendar.
Traditionally, the door to the market swings open and within hours, sometimes minutes, many of the league’s marquee names are trading in one jersey for another as teams attempt to reload or rebuild. But with the CFL’s current collective bargaining agreement expiring this winter and formal negotiations not expected to begin until March – at least a couple weeks after the free agency period begins at 11 a.m. on February 12th – there is a sense the opening of the market could be met with the sound of crickets.
That said, as Winnipeg Blue Bombers GM Kyle Walters indicated earlier this week in a chat with bluebombers.com, the transaction wire leading up to the opening of the market has hardly gone silent.
“The thought that nobody is going to sign because of the (CBA) uncertainty is proving to be false,” Walters said. “Players like to have secured contracts. If they like a certain place and know it’s going to get sorted out… I think come free agency you are going to see some guys sign rather than wait. I just think that in most years where free agency is often over within 48 hours, this year it could linger on and on with some players into May.”
The Bombers have already been busy, re-signing Justin Medlock, DT Jake Thomas and long-snapper Chad Rempel this week after previously inking FBs Mike Miller and John Rush, LB Jesse Briggs, offensive tackles Jermarcus Hardrick and RB Johnny Augustine, while also releasing two popular vets in CB Chris Randle and LB Maurice Leggett.
But with the market scheduled to open in a month, it’s worth noting that still leaves 25 players unsigned (that number was 13 at this time last year). That list includes CFL all-stars Adam Bighill, Matthias Goossen and Taylor Loffler, and nine other starters in Brandon Alexander, Nic Demski, Weston Dressler, Jackson Jeffcoat, Tristan Okpalaugo, Drake Nevis, Kevin Fogg, Jovan Santos-Knox and Sukh Chungh.
The harsh reality of the business of pro football, and especially so in the CFL where one-year contracts have become the norm, is a good chunk of this crew might not return.
With that in mind, bluebombers.com looks at the unsigned Bombers and what might be on the horizon just over a month out from the market opening…
Position: defensive back
His 2018: Turned in a solid sophomore season with the Bombers after being named the club’s top rookie in 2017. Played in 14 games, all starts, and finished with 56 defensive plays, highlighted by 36 tackles, three interceptions, two forced fumbles and fumble recoveries and five tackles for a loss – second only to Adam Bighill in that category.
Synopsis: Probably deserved more praise for his quiet but efficient second season with the Bombers. His size – 6-0, 192 pounds – also offers some versatility in his ability to move up into the box to play the SAM linebacker position.
His 2018: So many adjectives apply here, from ‘superb’ to ‘fantasitc’ to ‘dominant’ and so on and so on. Made an immediate impact in the Bombers defence as a game-changing middle linebacker en route to being named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player.
Synopsis: A huge ‘must-sign’ for the Bombers, as he not only racked up some gaudy stats in the heart of the defence, but upped the leadership quotient considerably. No coincidence that his arrival helped morph the Bomber D into a force by season’s end.
Position: right guard
His 2018: As steady as any of his four seasons in the CFL, all with the Bombers. Got a little love, too, after being named to the West Division All-Star team in season in which the Bombers led the league in scoring and helped Andrew Harris win his second consecutive rushing crown.
Synopsis: What you see is what you get with Chungh: he’s a passionate tone-setter in the middle of the offensive line, a respected teammate and leader.
Position: slotback/kick returner
His 2018: Best description? Solid. Found a good fit in Paul LaPolice’s offence and pulled in 59 passes for 554 yards and three TDs, rushed 34 times for 248 yards and a score, and added 374 yards on punt and kickoff returns. The total – 1,176 yards of production.
Synopsis: Established himself as a legit Canadian starter after three years of spot duty in Saskatchewan. Question now is, what is that worth on the open market and would the Bombers match or better any competing offer?
His 2018: Earned a spot as the starting centre on the CFL All-Star Team, so that says everything. Part of a unit that was the backbone of the CFL’s highest-scoring offence.
Synopsis: He’s just 26 and already has five years and 87 games under his belt. A hard-working technician would be busy fielding calls from would-be suitors if he hits the open market.
Position: wide receiver
His 2018: Same as usual: when he suits up he is a reliable and favourite target of Matt Nichols. Finished with 45 catches for 535 yards in 13 games – his lowest totals in three years as a Bomber – but did add five TDs, his best number since 2015.
Synopsis: There’s no arguing his value to the Bombers offence on the field and in the film room, where his experience is akin to having another coach on staff. The issue is his age and the fact he has also missed 16 games in three years since joining the club.
His 2018: Ho-hum… another year, another nod as the CFL’s All-Star safety. Finished with 52 tackles, three interceptions, five tackles for a loss and two fumble recoveries.
Synopsis: He was steady again and benefitted from having a presence like Bighill lining up in front of him in the Bombers defence. Three appearances on the all-star team likely mean mucho dolares for Loffler if he gets to the open market.
Position: defensive back/kick returner
His 2018: Dressed for 16 games, all starts, and led the Bombers in punt-return yardage and interceptions while racking up 64 defensive plays, fifth-best on the club.
Synopsis: No position group with the Bombers seems to undergo more change in recent years than the secondary. With Taylor Loffler, Brandon Alexander and Fogg all pending free agents – and Randle released earlier this week – that means the revolving door will keep spinning.
Position: defensive tackle
His 2018: Drew a great deal of praise from Bombers coaches for his work, which included 26 tackles and two sacks. Not flashy, but still a steady presence in the middle of the D-line.
Synopsis: So, what’s that consistency worth? The Bombers love the upside of Brandin Bryant and would have options available at the other D-tackle spot if they were forced to move on from Nevis.
Position: defensive end
His 2018: Finished with 31 tackles and five sacks in 18 games for the Bombers, the sack total ranking tied for third on the club behind Craig Roh (8), Jovan Santos-Knox (6) and tied with Jackson Jeffcoat, who played 12 games.
Synopsis: Okpalaugo’s two-year sack total with the Bombers is 11 – he had 12 as a rookie with Toronto in 2014 and 11 with the Argos a year later. The Bombers wanted more of the dominant stretches he occasionally flashed.
His 2018: A superb break-out season that, unfortunately, ended in the last week of the regular season with a broken foot. Blossomed into a defensive difference maker with 82 tackles, six sacks, five tackles for a loss, two forced fumbles and one forced fumble.
Synopsis: The broken foot in early November has delayed NFL teams from looking at JSK. That could be a bonus for the Bombers, who would rank him near the top of their free agent priority list right behind Bighill.
Position: guard, centre
His 2018: Finished his third year with the club by again dressing for all 18 games as the O-line’s sixth man. Saw his snaps increase, too, as the Bombers used him in more offensive sets.
Synopsis: It’s decision time for the club on Couture. They love the growth he’s shown to date and now have to decide whether there is still a place for him if Goossen and Chungh both return or if he is ready to be a replacement for one of those two mainstays up front should they leave via free agency.
His 2018: Dressed for 15 games, all as a designated import, and had 12 tackles, with another dozen on special teams.
Synopsis: Quiet, classy vet who was solid on special teams and a plug-and-play option in the linebacking corps. But while some vets cash in during free agency, some are victims to the ‘younger-cheaper’ philosophy.
Position: defensive end
His 2018: Essentially completely lost to injury after dressing for just three games. Had missed just two games in his first two years as a Bomber before ’18.
Synopsis: An exceptionally gifted athlete, but sad to say, injury concerns have put his career in doubt.
His 2018: Limited to just 10 games because of injuries, but did manage to rack up 11 special teams tackles.
Synopsis: Solid on special teams, but clubs also like to turn over the bottom of their rosters with draft picks and cheaper options. The Bombers have already recommitted to Mike Miller, Jesse Briggs and John Rush, but have always like Gauthier’s production.
Position: defensive back
His 2018: Added in mid-July after a slew of injuries to Bomber foot soldiers and proved to be a solid pick-up. Played in 14 games and started two, with two sacks and an interception.
Synopsis: He’s played nine seasons for four different CFL teams now, so a number of coaching staffs have liked what he can provide. Fitness/workout fiend who can still contribute.
Position: running back
His 2018: Appeared in 16 games, getting touches on those rare occasions that Andrew Harris was not in the backfield. Finished with 137 yards rushing and a 3.8-yards per carry average.
Synopsis: The Bombers recommitted to Johnny Augustine in December, who is a younger and cheaper version of LaFrance. That’s the kind of news that tends to make back-up Canadians uneasy at this time of year.
Position: wide receiver/returner
His 2018: Dressed for only four games in ’18, compared to 15 a year earlier and had five receptions for 91 yards.
Synopsis: Was once the club’s primary kick returner and first out of the bullpen when there was an injury in the receiving corps. Flashed his versatility in the regular season finale when he handled all the kicking chores and Coach O’Shea loves his professionalism, but that might not be enough to earn him another deal.
His 2018: Had 12 special teams tackles in 18 games as one of the veteran Canadians on special teams.
Synopsis: His days as a spot starter in Toronto in 2015 are long ago now, but he’s been solid on specials in his two years since joining the Bombers.
Position: defensive back
His 2018: Dressed for 16 games and had five special teams tackles after being cut and then added again after injuries.
Synopsis: He turns 28 in a couple of weeks and with a number of Canadian foot soldiers already re-signed, it might be tough for him to find a spot again. Teams don’t use the draft to just find potential Canadian starters, they’re also always looking for younger help.
His 2018: Dressed for six games and made five special tackles and four defensive tackles. Another veteran CFLer who was added when the injuries starting compiling.
Synopsis: He’s in the same boat as Morgan, Miles, Hecht, LaFrance, etc.
His 2018: Dressed for only five games, registering two special teams tackles, before an injury ended his season.
Synopsis: See Plesius, above.
His 2018: Dressed for five regular season games before starting both playoff tilts for an injured Santos-Knox. Was especially noticeable in the West Semi-Final win over Saskatchewan with three tackles and a sack.
Synopsis: Wilson has intrigued the Bombers coaches for a while. Remember, he was the leading candidate for the middle linebacker spot up until the addition of Bighill and showed enough versatility to be a good stop-gap when Santos-Knox was injured.